Farm Progress is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Beefs and Beliefs

Tradition as a millstone

tradition of roping calves
If you have the tradition of roping calves to work them, a question to ask yourself is whether you do it because it's the best way or because you like it.
Do your traditions drag you down or can you thoughtfully consider new ideas?

Tradition may be the greatest liability of the beef industry, and yet tradition is considered by many as the primary reason to be in the industry.

Tradition locks us into doing many things which are unprofitable and sometimes dangerous, so it can be a real problem.

It's a paradox that's curable only by the opening of one's mind to this fundamental idea: Things are the way they are, and the look the way they look, primarily because of decisions we have made and those we continue to make.

You may have heard these viewpoints called "paradigms." A paradigm is a way of thinking or a viewpoint you adopt, much like a habit, because it worked in the situation you lived at that time. It may not have solved a problem or even done a very good job accomplishing a task, but instead was easier than bearing the weight of ridicule from a father or mother or someone else in authority over you. Still you got feedback it was right so you kept doing it and came to believe it was the "right" way.

I also like to call these traditions our "orthodoxies." An orthodoxy is defined as a belief or a way of thinking that is accepted as true or correct, in some cases by large groups of people, but in others by single individuals or small groups, such as a family.

Orthodoxies are fiercely, sometimes violently, defended by those who hold them because it helps protect them from change.

American novelist and thinker Wendell Berry once wrote this fierce allegiance to old ideas and aversion to change is "the very nature of orthodoxy: One who presumes to know the truth does not look for it."

On the other hand, a new way of looking at something isn't right just because it's new. The secret is learning how to consider new ideas, how to analyze them, and how to try them or commit to them if they are beneficial.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle is credited with saying of this first step: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

He was talking about really considering an idea and weighing it. This means you must let down your paradigms about that topic for a time while you mull and measure it.

In fact, if we are to overcome a tradition, we must also ask why it was tradition in the first place. This is nicely explained by an idea often called "Chesterton's fence," penned by Christian theologian G.K. Chesterton many years ago.

He suggests we imagine, "for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, 'I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away.'

"To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: 'If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.'

"This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable."

Such historical examination is also part of analyzing new ideas. Sometimes we find reasons worth keeping, and at various degrees, and sometimes we find the original reason no longer exists.

Here are some examples of beef industry traditions/paradigms/orthodoxies.

  • The grading system is more than 100 years old and has been scientifically linked to eating quality. However, it does not alone provide for eating quality, and has been modified several times. Likely it will be modified several more. Australia has another system which is very different but must certainly have its own flaws.
  • Single-animal performance measurement has been around a very long time, but was always only one way of measuring performance. It can be a very good measurement in feedlots, but in range conditions, where land is the biggest cost, it is not as good as reputed.
  • Drive cattle from behind if you want them to go somewhere. The now well-known stockmanship advocate Bud Williams worked all his adult life to teach people you must work not only from behind but up the side of livestock to drive them.
  • Roping is the easiest/best way to work calves. Maybe ... maybe not. The research I could find is uncertain. The truth is, most people who do a log of calf roping do so primarily because they like it, or in some cases because they keep cattle where there are no working facilities.
  • It takes a lot of hay to get through winter. This claim is disproven every winter by beef producers who manage forage well and get through most or all the winter while grazing. Likely this idea originated after some of the giant blizzards which wiped out the fledgling cattle industry in the West at the turn of the last century. Those cattle were kept many years on rangeland through the winter with no grazing management and no hay. Today, the better and more profitable solution is good grazing management and some hay for the worst months or for emergencies (depending on your location and weather).

This list is endless if we only consider the individual traditions on each operation.

Nonetheless, as we begin a new year, I wish and pray for our industry and all those in it we would seek the most beneficial methods of doing and thinking, and that tradition could be more an honoring of the past than a map for the future.

Happy new year!

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.