Spending my professional life as a veterinarian and a scientist has resulted in moments of both clarity and confusion. The confusion has come from attempting to find a way forward in situations where there are multitudes of influencing factors with unknown effects on a problem, and also interactions among the influencing factors.
You know what my biggest fear is? That I am not seeing something right in front of me, something that is key to both describing the challenge and solving it. And that is where the coffee lids come in.
A favorite pastime for me is to pull into a convenience store I’ve never been to, fill up a coffee cup and possibly meet the local global decision-making team at the corner table. In this process, I have developed a test to continually monitor my mental status and ability to solve complex problems. The test involves finding the coffee cup lids.
Cup in hand, I make a first scan of the coffee area and often come up empty. Panic starts to set in, especially since the global decision team is watching the stranger and wondering what those Kansas plates are doing in this neighborhood. Must control panic, must focus ... Maybe they don’t have lids?
Surely they have lids. OK, the solution to this challenge isn’t easy. Now it is time for a second, slower look. Where have I seen lids before? A standing carousel? Not here. Stacked off to the side? Nope. Maybe one of those newfangled flip-out things which just gives you one at a time? Not here.
Now the cashier is watching me, too. The pressure is on. The man in the arena. If I ask for help, this could be the start of the slow slide to dependence.
Third scan, starting with the counter level, then below the counter,to the sides and on top of the machines. There! The cups and holder are the same color as the top of the espresso machine. I can take you to the local quick stop in Minnesota where these are. Nonchalantly strolling over, I take a lid, put it on, and head over to the counter, relieved that I can travel one more day on my own.
Aren’t our days like this in the cattle business? We get used to our historical practices, only to find ourselves not so sure when things change. If only we could be as sure of our solutions as holding that lid in our hand.
What’s your coffee lid today? Maybe it’s our use of technologies to enhance production, how we interact with our physical environment, the health of our animals, finding and keeping qualified labor, regulatory and legislative changes, animal welfare challenges, competition among proteins, or our relationship with both our true consumers and those who would like to see animal agriculture out of business.
Just like my moments of panic in the quick stop, the answer is to step back and take the time to evaluate the whole landscape. Unlike my stubborn attempts to solve the lid problem on my own, we also have to pull in others.
My message today is a call for us to get together in our local and national associations, step back, keep our focus and do the things we do best in agriculture: adapt and evolve. We need you. And let’s be quick to forgive ourselves if it isn’t right the first time.
Apley, a DVM and Ph.D., is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.