Farm Progress

What's really the best management?

To achieve the best, all parts of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex must be nurtured and none can be degraded.

Walt Davis 1, Editor

February 28, 2018

3 Min Read
We cannot use any practice on the farm or ranch in isolation of other practices or results. All are related, and some tear more down than they build up.Alan Newport

Humans have a built-in need to make everything (except our desks) neat and orderly. We dislike dealing with things that we cannot categorize into neat little pigeon holes.

Farmers and ranchers are particularly fond of separating their problems and the means of dealing with these problems into tidy individual slots. Weed control here, animal performance there, disease prevention behind, cash flow over here and everybody stay in your place. We often look at these factors as separate and unrelated entities to be addressed one at a time.

The epitome of this fixation would be the "best management practices" concept of management. This theory says that if we follow recommended practice for each segment of our management – "best" weed control, "best" vaccination program, "best" fertility program, and so on – results will be as good as conditions allow.

I believe that this assumption has caused far more headaches than it ever cured. My reasoning is that it attempts to deal with complex situations with linear thinking, and it falls short in many ways. It fails to account for the differences in value of improvement in various practices.

  • Which is more valuable, a pound of grass grown in June or a pound of grass grown in February?

  • It also does not consider undesirable side effects of the practices used, such as killing quality forage forbs along with weeds, or beneficial insects along with horn flies.

  • It largely ignores long-term financial considerations such as reduced soil health and productivity due to tillage or chemicals.

  • It is particularly poor in foreseeing future problems caused by the adopted practices.

An example I have used before is calf weaning weights. We start with the goal of raising weaning weights, and apply practices to produce heavier calves. It is not at all hard to grow bigger calves: Use high-growth-rate bulls, implant hormones, creep feed, calve early and wean late, select for heavy-milking cows. All of these practices will, at least in theory, result in higher weaning weights. It is not at all certain, however, that they will result in greater profits or even more total revenue.

Once, many years ago, I was following university recommendations and calving in January and February. One winter day it started raining about sundown and started freezing shortly after. During the night, we had 26 calves born, and next morning all 26 were dead. The calves that lived weaned heavy but dead calves don't contribute much to the average.

Other less dramatic results of fixation on heavy weaning weights would include bigger cattle with higher feed requirements, fewer calves per acre of pasture, higher calving losses, and fewer animals able to perform on grass alone.

With so many negatives, is striving for higher weaning weights – which will sell for less per pound than lighter calves – really a valid goal that will promote the total health and wellbeing of the operation?

Reality dictates it is not possible to apply a practice in isolation: poison to kill weeds, insect pests or coyotes will also kill valuable members of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex we call a ranch. We must realize that any action that effects any part of the complex effects all parts. The standard criteria for judging success or failure of a practice must be much more comprehensive than whether the weeds died or whether this years' yields went up.

The way to long-lasting success lies not in polishing all parts of the machine to a high gloss but rather in adopting the management philosophy and practices that effectively and efficiently create an operation that is productive, profitable and regenerative of the resources available to it. To do this means that we must have a clear vision of what we are trying to accomplish over the long haul.

The most successful operations will work toward a goal that is financially, ecologically and sociologically sound. It is wealth-creating rather than wealth-consuming, it regenerates rather than degrades local resources, and it provides a quality life for the humans involved.

"Best management practice management" is a valid concept if we properly define the word "best." To deserve the title, management must insure that all parts of the soil-plant-animal-wealth-human complex are nurtured and none are degraded by the management.

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