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Only the Learners Survive – Thoughts on How to Be One of Them

This is a quote from Eric Hoffer who was known as the longshoreman philosopher. Mr. Hoffer has been dead since 1983 but these words are more applicable today than when he wrote them.

Those of us, who a few years ago began to realize that the “learned” were being no help to us at all, decided to once again become learners. And what we began to learn was that the methods that we were taught by the “learned” were not sustainable. Figuring out what is sustainable is the whole purpose of our pasture walks that I’ve written about before. We may not have all of the answers but we believe that we are beginning to ask the right questions.

Here are some of the questions we ask and what we think about.

Is Innovation Good?

One of the first concepts that we realized is not entirely correct is about innovation. Innovation, like change has no inherent value. It can be good or it can be bad. Here are three examples:

• Dr. Fred Provenza, in some of his research at Utah State, found that cattle fed the ingredients of a total mixed ration gained more weight than those fed the mixed ration, and at a cost of 20% less. The innovation of the total mixed ration may not have taken us where we planned.

• The guy working in an automobile assembly plant does not look too favorably at the innovation that put the robot in his place and put him on the street.

• As far as our grazing operations, Management-intensive Grazing (MiG) would not be possible, to the extent that it is used by some of us, without the electric fences and poly-wire.

But we must never forget that innovation must be used to improve our operations and not be used just for the sake of innovation. The principles of growing grass will never change, the methods that we use to utilize the grass that we do grow is the place for innovation.

Can Production Solve All Our Problems?

One of the attitude adjustments that has caused a lot of heartache among cattle producers is the belief that production will take care of all of the other problems in our business. It has finally dawned on some folks that you cannot produce your way to prosperity. The problem is not production, it is the cost of production and it is not all about economics of scale. Chances are if your outfit is not profitable now, getting larger will only be more costly.

The first attitude adjustment that most of us need to make is to learn how to get profitable with what we have and then begin to think about getting bigger. The learning curve in any situation can be very hard for most of us to handle. Learning the basics can be very difficult because most of us think that we are beyond that point. The fact that we cannot over-power every problem with technology can be difficult for some of us to accept.

In the operation of a cattle enterprise it would be more useful to understand how grass grows than to know how to operate a hay baler. The simple truth is that you cannot bale what is not there, so to put things in some order that is workable, your first priority is to grow grass. And this can be a humbling experience to admit to yourself that something as basic to our business as grass is beyond your ability to understand.

Where Am I Going?

What is the most important factor that you consider in your planning strategies? Do you have a strategy or do you just react to what happens?

Our attitude adjustments are often made in times of stress and this can lead us to do things that are not always in our best interest. It would be foolishness to believe that we can plan for every eventuality and this is why we need to have an overall strategy in the management of our operations.

In your planning be honest with yourself. If there are shortcomings in your skills, do what is necessary to correct this, don’t be proud. What you know or think you know may not have any meaning in a new situation.

The fact that you have a plan for what you are trying to do and the direction that you want to go with your operation does not mean that the problems are solved. Sometimes if you know the way it is still hard to get there. And as hard as it may be for all of us, sometimes we just need to stop and ask ourselves just what are we trying to accomplish? The obvious move may be to go back and redefine our goals and to understand that the best place to start to build is from the bottom up and the foundation of any cattle operation must be built on the grass. It is one piece that if it is lost, the puzzle cannot be completed.

What are My Goals and Priorities?

As a grazier your first goal should be to provide as near an optimum environment as possible for the animals. The animal’s sole purpose to the grazier is to convert forage into human food as near to its genetic potential as possible. Does this describe your operation? Or is your outfit more designed to cater to the needs of the animals regardless of costs or consequences?

If you want to be a grazier the first concept that you must understand is that you are in the grass business not the adding-value-to-corn business. One of the goals mentioned in some of these discussions of grazing management is to own a herd of cattle that has never eaten any hay or feed.

By setting goals such as these are we setting ourselves up for failure? Edward Abbey, who is one of my favorite writers, had this to say about goals and ideals: the function of an ideal is not to be realized, but like the North star, to serve as a guiding point.

My own feelings about this goal setting – if it is too high it can lead to disillusionment and even failure, it is much better to take incremental steps toward a goal. An example would be to decrease hay use by 20% by adding more days of grazing. But I also believe that if we continue to  challenge ourselves it just may be possible to do things that we thought impossible. The cost of producing a 100 lbs. of calf is the single most important figure in the whole cost analysis of the cow-calf operation. This is what pays the bills, if it costs more to produce the calves than the market is paying there is no profit. So ask yourself, what will make me the most money over the long haul, higher prices, or lower production costs?

What are your priorities? What is that old saying about getting the cart ahead of the horse? I think some of us have done just that. We worry about genetics when we should be worrying about how we are going to feed the cattle we have now. The biggest lie out there right now is how all the changes in your genetics will be the salvation of your cow outfit. It is true that it doesn’t cost anymore to feed a good one than it does to feed a sorry one. But truth be told, there are more genetics out there than most folks know what to do with now and a good one will starve just as fast as a sorry one. The answer then is: to have super genetics you must have super and affordable nutrition and in our business this does not come in a truck or sack. It is in the grass that you grow.

Am I Doing the Right Things?

Peter Drucker, who is one of the most quoted management gurus explains cutting costs this way – there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.

What are you doing that you really do not need to be doing?

Look at everything that you do and ask the question, WHY?

If you were not doing it now would you start doing it today? If the answer is no, then it may be time to stop.

Poor pasture can be improved by good management. Good pasture can be ruined by poor management. The first does not cost a lot, but it takes a little longer to accomplish. The second can be very costly and does not take very long time to accomplish.

The purpose of this paper is not to overwhelm the reader with knowledge. Mine is as limited as the next person, but maybe it can help folks to begin to look at what they are doing and begin to look at some of the options available for the improvement of their operations. Learning rules is useful, but it isn’t education. Education is thinking, and thinking is looking and seeing what is there, not what you were told is there. No matter how you decide to make changes in your operation, if in fact you find change would be an improvement, never devise a business strategy that requires you to do things you just won’t do. The key is to be honest with yourself. We are who we are.

But remember this, Hope is a good thing, but Hope is not a strategy.

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Don Ashford
Don Ashford
My name is Don Ashford and my wife is Betty and we live in Ethel, LA. It would be impossible for me to write a bio about myself without including Betty in it. We have been together since high school. I was in the senior class of 1955 and she was in the class of 1957. Do the math. We have raised cattle since 1959 except for a little time that I spent with Uncle Sam. We have grazed stockers, owned several cow- calf herds and custom grazed cattle for other folks. I worked as a pipefitter for more than 25 years. Until we went into the dairy business in 1977 we were as most people down here part-timers or week-end ranchers. Later after we had learned enough about MIG to talk about it so that it would be understood by others we put together a pasture-walk group to introduce it to our friends and neighbors. We belong to more farm groups then we probably should but we get great joy working with other people. What makes us most proud are our son and daughter, our 5 grandkids and our 7 great-grand kids. It has been a hell of a trip so far, but we are not done yet.


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