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Experience counts when developing farm intuition

Tough Decisions: Farmers make complex decisions that affect the bottom line every day, but intuition helps in making sound decisions over time.

March 17, 2023

3 Min Read
Man walking in cornfield
SOUND DECISIONS: Gut instinct, intuition or whatever you want to call it can be a skill that is honed and improved through experience. Per Breiehagen/Getty Images

by Jay Parsons

Tacit knowledge is knowledge that cannot be articulated. It is common for farmers and ranchers to be able to do something proficiently without being able to fully explain how they do it. This is an example of tacit knowledge. Some may call it instinct. Others may call it skill. To the extent this knowledge is used for decision-making, it is often described as intuition.

But can farmers and ranchers learn intuition? To what extent is intuition a skill that can be honed and developed?

People with good intuition are often thought of as people who seem to reach accurate conclusions with little or no analysis. They seem to be born with a “gut instinct” for producing good results.

However, it is worth discussing the relationship between the deliberation that goes into making choices and the demonstration of a skill. Consider a NASCAR driver that continuously makes choices on the racetrack. Eventually, the driver becomes an exhibit for skilled driving behavior. These driving skills are honed over hours of practice and experience making choices in similar situations on the racetrack until deciding what to do with the race car becomes an automated feature of how they drive.

Farmers and race car drivers

Skilled farmers and ranchers are not much different from race car drivers. They hone their skills over the years making decisions in situations that seem to repeat every so often with a few pieces of information changing around.

What may seem like “gut instinct” is better described as a skill they have developed through experience. Sometimes, there is a need to gather information and crunch some numbers to get to the right solution. This is especially true when faced with an important decision for the first time. However, as experience builds, many decisions become more and more routine. They are made based on experience and reading the situation.

Peter Nuthall, a farm management professor at Lincoln University in New Zealand, has written extensively on the managerial ability of farmers and ranchers over the past 25 years. Some of the conclusions his research has led him to are quite interesting when it comes to farmer decision-making abilities and what goes into being a good farm manager.

For example, Nuthall argues that improving farmer intuition is likely to lead to better business outcomes than developing expert decision support systems for them to use. Some of Nuthall’s research work led him to conclude that 70% of intuition can be learned by farmers, and that experience, open communication, reflection and self-critique are the most important factors contributing to improving farmer intuition.

Experience counts

In another study, Nuthall assessed key attributes that explained farmers high managerial ability. While intelligence was an important attribute, the study identified experience as the major factor contributing to the development of managerial ability.

Nuthall noted the importance of exposing children to the decision-making process by allowing them to participate in farm decision discussions at an early age as a positive influence on the development of managerial ability.

People tend to think complex problems require complex solutions. This tendency compounds the challenges of farm and ranch management. Developing simple rules and intuition can help clarify choice situations and lead to more consistently positive outcomes.

Farmers and ranchers can improve their own intuition and that of the next generation by committing to a process for thinking through and communicating about management decisions. It does not have to be complicated. When the communication becomes difficult, the focus should be on identifying clear objectives and learning from experience.

Parsons is a professor in the department of agricultural economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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