Livestock Record Keeping Advice From a Heretic: Stop Writing Stuff Down!

This month we’ve been looking at record keeping and it’s place in our operations. So I asked John Marble to weigh in and share why he keeps almost no records at all. He’ll start with some thoughts about the value of collecting animal data. He’ll talk about other kinds of data in future issues.

I know one thing: each of us have things we’d like to avoid doing. One way out is to always have a little list of chores that you can run and do when you need camouflage.

“So, are we all set to work on the taxes after chores?”

“Well, I’m thinking I’d like to get a start on cleaning up the treatment room today. Maybe tax stuff later this afternoon.”

Sigh.”

John’s messy treatment room. Do you know what the silver thing is on top of the cabinet?

The truth is, the treatment room was a complete disaster. It hadn’t been cleaned up for five years and there was junk everywhere. I started on the big work bench, then worked my way to the open shelves and the big wall cabinet. All manner of broken vet equipment, bottles full of rock-hard goop, used syringes, rags…just anything you can imagine. I reached way to the back of the top shelf and pulled out a dusty gray metal box that looked strangely familiar. It obviously it hadn’t been touched in years. I pried that box open and was instantly transported back twenty years or so. In my hand was a stack of custom-made 5” X 7” index cards, each one filled in with data from 1986. Each card was for a particular cow, with little boxes for ear tag #, color, ear tattoo, plus information about her calf in that year: sex, calving date, calf tag number, calf color.

I looked at those old index cards for a second, then tossed them in the trash can. After all, every one of those cows was long-dead, so that data really had no value.

But the truth is, that data had no value on the day it was collected. And come to think of it, I would propose that the vast majority of the animal data we ranchers collect has no true value. The act of collecting “production data” does have one certain sort of value, I suppose: it keeps us busy and happy and makes us feel like we are being good managers. But honestly, most of it is a complete waste of time, and here’s why:

We don’t do anything with it.

And for the one single significant event that people sometimes use production data for (culling), I would suggest that using data is a terribly inefficient  method of decision-making.

Every person out there who is spending time tagging and weighing calves and recording who is the mother of whom might want to simply stop and consider whether they actually do anything with that calf data. The argument for collecting cow/calf data seems focused on the idea that we make culling decisions based on that data, but is that really true? For the most part, I think not.

Meanwhile, here on the ranch….Here’s What I Do

During years when we are operating as a seasonal cow-calf ranch, my personal approach to cattle data is pretty simple and based on marketing. On arrival, each cow gets a color-coded ear tag during her initial processing.

Green for Gummer
Blue for Broken-mouth
White for Full-mouth

See that white tag? That’s one of John’s full mouth cows.

Calves are processed in waves as they are born. Whenever the herd is drifting (rotating) past a processing facility, I take a look and decide whether enough fresh calves have been born to justify processing. If yes, I sort off the fresh babies and run them through the alley. Each calf gets a color-coded number tag and an initial round of processing.

White for boys
Pink for girls

The purpose of this tagging is to indicate that this calf has been banded and has received its first round of vaccines. The color scheme makes sorting calves later really easy.

Please note: I don’t even record the ear tag numbers of the cows or the calves.

Why should I? The cow certainly knows which calf is hers, and the calves are pretty good at recognizing which teat is theirs. And for folks who worry about being able to pair up sick cows and calves later on, well, if that is a significant piece of your labor schedule, I’d suggest you have some bigger, more fundamental issues to deal with, things like basic health and nutrition or breeding schedules.

But what about records for culling purposes?

Of course, some readers would argue that my cow-calf enterprise is just a transient bunch of cattle, so I can get by with no “records”. If I had a permanent cow herd, I’d surely keep track of which cows produced the best calves and which ones produced the worst ones, right? That way, I’d be able to pick out the culls, right? Sorry, nope.

I’ve written in the past that “a cow’s ‘goodness’ should be judged by the value of her calf.” With that in mind, people who own permanent mother cows should very easily be able to identify the small number of horrible calves they have during the grazing season if they just take a minute to look. The horrible calves belong to horrible cows. The cows have a number tag. Sell them as pairs if you possibly can and let someone else try to fix them. Failing that, sell those bad cows at weaning.

Lastly, I suppose, would be the purebred, registered cattle enterprises that some folks choose to manage. In this case, humans are choosing to accept a set of rules about the data they must collect and how they will manage their animals. I would simply note that much of that data has little basis in economics. Average daily gain, weaning weight, yearling weight are certainly “production” data, but they don’t tell us anything much about economic efficiency of a cow.  Sorry if that hurts your feelings.

Finally, if you have a little red book in your pocket or a big raggedy spiral notebook on your dash board, I would ask you to think about where last year’s version of that data is and what decisions it helped you make in your business.

Free yourself.

Stop writing all that stuff down.

Then, take all that new-found time and go look at your animals from time to time. Observe what’s going on in your herd. You might be surprised what you see.

Happy Grazing,

JHM

Stay tuned for John’s upcoming heretical look at the data we collect about our plant communities!

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