There is absolutely no place where Murphy's Law is more applicable than on the farm or ranch. The old saying of “what can go wrong, will go wrong” comes true on farms and ranches around the world on a daily basis. This is also not a new phenomenon by any stretch and has been true since the domestication of the first cow or the first time a furrow was plowed in the soil. If it can die, get sick, break, fail, collapse, sink, explode, you name it, it has or will happen on the farm.
This is one reason why farmers and ranchers are so resourceful. Or are they resourceful because of these occurrences – it's really a chicken or the egg type of thing. It really doesn't matter though since having to persevere in the face of adversity or make things work when everything is going wrong is the state of the producer where he or she are growing plants, animals or both.
In the following article we are going to look at problem-solving on the farm with the primary focus being on livestock operations. After that we'll consider some strategies to prevent some of these problems in the future.
What can go wrong, will. . . . .
In the course of a given day I will get an assortment of phone calls from various producers who are looking to accomplish any one of several things including planning for future cost management, feed, forage or basic nutrition needs, improving performance, lowering feed costs and so on. But by and large the most common call I get is from a producer who starts off with “I am having a problem with “this” and I don't know what to do about it.” As such, my job as a consultant puts me in the position of a professional problem solver. Sometimes that creates many fascinating challenges, the satisfactory results of which are generally very rewarding. Other times it reveals circumstances which would make even the most patient want to pull out every hair on their head.
Problems on a livestock operation come in every shape and form. These can include but are certainly not limited to:
1) Poor production - animals not gaining or growing as you would like them to.
2) Poor health or loss of animals increased levels of sickness or death in the herd.
3) Poor reproduction – cattle not breeding, conceiving or carrying a fetus to term
4) Unsatisfactory income – low or no profits. Perhaps even significant losses of revenue.
And this list does not begin to address things like equipment breakage or failures or the vast array of other things that can go wrong on the farm.
Let's take a look at the four items listed.
Production on the farm or ranch can be defined as anything that results in the existence of marketable product, the sale of which provides revenue for the operation. On a livestock and specifically a cattle operation, depending on the type of operation your primary commodity produced is pounds of beef. The basic measurement of success in a commercial beef cattle operation is the production of the maximum amount of beef at the optimum cost creating the greatest return on investment. We know that the primary factors which affect this success include management (manager or owner input), nutrition, health, genetics and environmental conditions. Frankly, with the exception of the environment, everything else is controlled by management so this should be remembered when the finger pointing starts. Within this scenario we actually see several things that can go wrong but let's consider how this can be evaluated.
First we actually have to recognize that there is a problem. This is normally based on a comparison to past performance or to the performance of other, similar operations. In many cases, especially with newer or less experienced producers (but with more experienced producers too) the existence of a problem is not recognized simply because the producer may not be familiar with the production system, may not be paying close enough attention, have inadequate or non-existent record keeping (too common) or simply be too close to the situation to see where the problems are (very common). But let's use a fairly common example. Let's say that this year's calf crop, when weaned, averaged 30 lbs per head lighter than the average of previous years. If you are weaning 100 calves this is equal to 3000 lbs less marketable calf (beef) than what you had in previous years. Given what current markets are, if your average weaning weight is 550 lbs, on today's average market your price per lb. would be around $1.10. This means you would receive $3,300 less this year in gross sales as compared to previous years. Since average production costs for a given cow for a year are around $300, this means you would not have covered your production costs on 11 cows.
First you have to ask: “Why was the average weight of these cattle lighter?”
The first thing you have to look at is nutrition. Normal nutrition sources for the calf include the cow, for the milk she produces. The forage - the grass, hay or silage that the calf consumes. Any supplemental feed you might provide.
At this point you have to take a step back and look at your environmental conditions. Was it particularly dry thus reducing forage growth? Was it very wet, increasing the amount of mud the cattle may have had to deal with and if high enough, perhaps even having a negative effect of forage nutrient levels. Was it colder than normal or hotter than normal? Both of which can increase stress on the animal and depress gains.
Next look at forages in general. What was the quality and quantity of grazed forages? Obviously this relates to moisture conditions. Drought conditions generally result in lowered forage availability. How were pastures fertilized and how were weeds controlled, if at all? How was hay/silage harvested and put up. Were plants exceptionally mature, thus reducing digestibility and nutrient density (protein, TDN)? A reduction on forage quality and quantity can also reduce milk volume from the cow. Altogether this would reduce nutrient availability to the calf and depress gains
Third, were supplemental feeds provided to increase gains in previous years? If forage quality and quantity were down, it may have been necessary to provide supplemental feeds or forages just to stay even. If supplements have typically been provided, was a change made in quality, quantity, type or supplier, in an effort to keep costs down in a rising feed market? Was feed made available consistently or was it provided only sporadically? Remember that going to a cheaper feed cost is not always a good thing. There is typically a reason why, when two feeds are essentially the same on the tag, one is significantly cheaper than the other. Generally this will be due to energy content which is not required on feed tags and thus can vary greatly. Since energy is the nutrient which drives gains, a feed with a lowered cost AND a lowered energy value can ultimately cost you more money than a more expensive product that provided better gains and feed efficiency. This must be evaluated carefully.
Take a look at animal health. How was the health of these cattle? Were there more respiratory or digestive health challenges than normal? What about internal and external parasite loads? This is also a management question but should be evaluated here as well. If int/ext parasites were treated less aggressively this could have resulted in lowered weight gains.
Consider genetics. If your cow herd is the same, was a different bull(s) used? If so, were these bulls of a quality consistent or better than your ongoing breeding program? Did you take a look at their EPD (expected progeny difference) numbers or other performance data that might have come with that animal? Or, frankly, did you go out and buy the cheapest bull you could, just so you had something to breed the cows with, not considering that the bull is actually greater than ½ your calf crop and can have a HUGE effect on the amount ob beef produced.
Sixth, this is the hard one – your management. As the old saying goes, the devil is in the details. Dotting I's and crossing T's can mean the difference (a huge difference) between profit and losses. Items like hay testing, use of a de-wormer and fly control and choosing a better quality feed supplement that could improve gains AND feed efficiency thus ultimately reducing feeding costs can all have a significant effect when considered individually and an enormous effect collectively.
Every herd is going to have some animal health treatment expenses. Just like people, cattle get sick from time to time. They can sustain injuries or can develop problems with internal or external parasites, conditions like warts or ringworm and so on. Even the very best, well-managed herds run into these problems on occasions.
Some producers can become as hypochondriacal about the health of their cattle as they can their own themselves and can ultimately burn up the road between their farm and the vet's office. Learning to recognize real health concerns is very important to keep your animal health costs down and maintaining a good relationship with your veterinarian.
Remember that health issues can affect general well-being, growth, fertility and so on. Developing a good animal health program which provides the appropriate vaccinations for your type of operation in your part of the world or part of the country. More about this later.
If it seems that you are treating more health issues or you recognize some specific problem you need to ask yourself some of the following:
1) Does my current animal health program (vaccinations, processes, etc.) address this specific problem? If it is supposed to then why doe it appear to be failing?
2) How does my current nutrition program affect animal health? Minerals are especially important to health and to maintenance of the immune system. Without a proper mineral program the likelihood is very good that immunity will be depressed leading to lack of response to vaccines and a reduction in overall health. Additionally, reduced or inadequate protein and energy levels can likewise reduce the effectiveness of the immune system.
3) What stress level are these cattle under? Is it wet, dry hot, cold? What about handling and shipping practices? Are cattle being stressed too much by how they are being handled? How are your facilities? Can cattle be handled and worked calmly, quietly and easily?
We've started taking a look at how a producer can go about identifying and addressing problems in his operation and hopefully minimizing these as much as possible. At the very least if the focus is to catch problems early a quick resolution may be possible. In the next issue we'll continue this discussion and look into preemptive planning and actions that can prevent and potentially eliminate some of these issues that can create such headaches.
Dr. Steve Blezinger is a management and nutritional consultant with an office in Sulfur Springs, TX. He can be reached at 667 CR 4711 Sulphur Springs, TX 75482, by phone at (903) 352-3475 or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more information visit www.blnconsult.com.