Is tradition holding your ranching operation back?

Troy Marshall

August 20, 2015

5 Min Read
Is tradition holding your ranching operation back?

I love oyster stew on Christmas Eve. I’m not an Aggie, but I love yell practice and the 12th man. That’s because some traditions, everything from white wedding dresses to holding open a door, usually have value. If they didn’t, I reason, they wouldn’t have stood the test of time. Other traditions just simply make us feel better. When my kids were showing at a big show in Oklahoma City, we started eating breakfast every morning at Waffle House. I don’t know why, it was just something that happened, but I guess we all enjoy it now because it is a tradition. 

With that said, we just completed a quarterly planning session where we try to ensure we are still on the path to where we want to go with our cattle operation. Afterward, I couldn’t fight the feeling that the one thing that keeps our small management team from moving forward more quickly is an adherence to tradition. 

Forbes magazine ran an article detailing how businesses that couldn’t change their core tenants or traditions have found themselves becoming irrelevant. I would say that 60% of traditions are positive and another 20% harmless, but every business probably has 20% of their traditions that are actually harmful long term. 

Our new mantra is that we don’t fall in love with anything but the cows, the land, the data, our customers and our employees. Everything else might get chucked out the window tomorrow. We are committed to breeding great cattle, taking care of the land, basing decisions on good data and building strong relationships with customers, employees and family, but just about everything we do to achieve those goals is now subject to change. We aren’t looking to change for the sake of change, but we are striving to be much better and assessing what works and what doesn’t. If what we’re doing no longer works or we find a better way to do it, then we are going to change

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I think our transformation in thinking about traditions came when we realized that we associate traditions with values. The values are not something we want to change, but how we achieve them is up in the air. Getting together with friends at branding is the type of tradition worth keeping. But in many instances, we do things simply out of tradition and that precludes us from looking for better ways to get them done.

I love the Zig Ziglar story about the young couple preparing an Easter ham. The young wife cut the ends off of the ham, and when the husband asked why, she didn’t really know. So they called her mom, who didn’t have an explanation either. When they called the grandmother, she explained that her pan was too small for the ham to fit. We are striving to eliminate cutting the ends off the ham. 

It is simply about being honest about the effectiveness of our traditions. I thought that might be difficult to answer, but it hasn’t proven to be that tough. At this point we simply ask, does this help us to breed better cattle, be more profitable or build better relationships? If it isn’t a definitive yes, then it bears scrutiny. 

The difficulty in making a change is that while some traditions on a ranch may not be working well, they aren’t entirely broken either. That’s especially true when we don’t have a better alternative in mind to replace it. The problem is that continuing with the poor program enables us to not find the alternative. 

When I was growing up, we had a gate that didn’t swing right in our corrals. We didn’t use it much and we never took the time to fix it. My grandpa got fed up one day, hooked the gate to the pickup as he left and pulled it down. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was teaching us that sometimes the best way to fix something that is partially broken is to break it. We solved the problem in short order because he had created the urgency for change. 

It is tough, but we are trying to pull down the broken gates before they are totally off of their hinges. The Obama administration is famous for saying it would never let a crisis go to waste. I haven’t gotten total buy-in from the crew, but I think part of the job of a manager is to create a few crises along the way. 

The book Good to Great makes the case that the enemy of great is good. We don’t want to accept second-best initiatives; we want to embrace the best. If we can create an atmosphere where good is no longer good enough, we will have succeeded. We want to focus on the things that are truly moving us forward toward our goals and to be willing to jettison those things that don’t. 

The opinions of Troy Marshall are not necessarily those of and the Penton Agriculture Group.


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