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Thinking multiple steps ahead for cow-calf producers

This is a topic that I have tried on several occasions to write about but thought that it might be too ambiguous in terms of what could possibly be written that would seem valuable enough or intriguing enough to be read by cow-calf producers. What has kept this topic simmering on the backburner have been observations not only at work but also with my kids at home. Many of you with children can probably relate with their decision making skills. Immediate gratification or what minimal effort needs to be applied for the situation at hand, are often times the ONLY factors in how they make their choices. Whether it is their purchasing decisions, how they go about their homework, their daily chores, or their approach to a task they have been asked to do. Short term thinking basically wins the day.


There certainly are times when you need to react or respond with speed to events and activities around you, come to a conclusion quickly, make your decision and move on. We also know of those individuals that struggle with making even the simplest decisions while making sure they have taken any and all possible outcomes and information into account before coming to an over-thought conclusion, if they make one at all. I believe they call that “Analyses by Paralysis”. I am not looking at either of these ends of the spectrum, but what more likely happens with decisions that are made within the cow-calf business that impact your time, cattle management, your business management, resource management, community, environment and overall balance of work and family. This blog is a challenge for you to do a self-assessment on how you make decisions. Think beyond the impact of the immediate results and determine how will they will affect things further down the chain.

The one who swaths the hay, has to bale it

My uncle George picked me up after swathing hay one day back when I was growing up in North Dakota. He looked my work over and his only comment to me was that anyone who swaths the hay, has to then bale it. I never really thought of his comment much at the time until I then took upon the task of baling what I had just swathed. Most of you probably already know the outcome of this story and the struggles I had trying to pick up swaths with a baler when the person swathing, i.e. me, paid no attention to how the windrows would be picked up. It is interesting how that one life-lesson has stuck with me all this time some 40 years later. It is also one that I use often with my own kids as they try to approach tasks and chores with a single purpose in mind… just get enough money to buy that one thing, just let me get this one task done so I can move on to something fun and so on and so on.

Thinking multiple steps ahead can do wonders for avoiding unproductive time, angst, disappointment, frustration, strained relationships, added costs, missed opportunities, misery and I could go on and on. Think of it as kicking the can down the road or passing the buck. Many times, quick decisions for the wrong reasons or with too little/wrong information can be potentially disastrous and at the very least increase the amount of wasted time devoted to unproductive activities. It is tasks like asking your kids to clean up their room, only to find they spent all sorts of creative ways of cramming their stuff under the bed, in the closet or worst of all putting all of their clothes in the hamper to be sent down to the wash, regardless if dirty or clean and folded neatly...just as long as everything was out of sight at inspection time, clean and tidy on the surface.  Unfortunately, once you uncovered all of their deceitful efforts, they then had to spend additional time to go back to their bedrooms and do the job properly. You may have even introduced them on how to do laundry given that they were such generous contributors. This little example has probably been a part of most every household with kids. But talk about a teachable moment!

How does this relate to cow-calf producers?

So let’s move on to how this can all relate to a beef cow-calf producer. There are countless activities that go on every day with cow-calf producers that require decisions that impact your operations short-term, intermediate and longer-term. Let’s take your genetic program when making mating decisions. The first step is to make sure you have the end in mind. What do you want in a calf crop at the end of the day? Will you be keeping replacement heifers from the bulls you select? Are you a smaller producer and some of the requirements with targeted marketing programs are too difficult to achieve?  Are you a large producer and can manage your resources to participate in a value-added program that provides a nice incentive for your efforts? There can be countless questions and many different directions associated with just this one area of cow-calf production. The main thing is to think multiple steps ahead before going to the bull sale to make sure the bulls you are targeting will help you get to that desired “end in mind”. Buying a bull that doesn’t fit can perpetuate problems that may take considerable time to become evident and often years to then deal with before correcting.

Waiting on green grass

My favorite area when working with cow-calf producers is looking at opportunities associated with their nutrition program. Right now most spring calving herds have their calves weaned, their winter forage supplies established and are in a period of waiting until calving. It is a great time to be thinking several steps ahead as you inventory your feed/forage supplies to make sure you are on track until green grass next spring.

  1. Grab some stored forage samples and prioritize when they will be used during the winter months based both on quality and how much you have on hand.

  2. Do you have enough to get you through the winter? 

  3. How does a winter storm or two, factor in?

  4. Can you access some sort of fall grazing to delay getting into your stored forage supplies?

  5. When using inexpensive lower quality forages, what type of supplements are best suited to optimize your labor, avoid added equipment expense, reduce overall costs and at the same time meet the nutritional requirements of different cattle groups to minimize any of those potential crisis down the road?  

As you can see, there can be a number of considerations that can go into a decision that is right for you. Waiting until the last minute can often lead to increased expense as well as time devoted to dealing with issues that have been created by waiting.

Don't let crisis manage you

We all have some think time, especially if we can stay off the cell phones for a decent period of time. When out working cattle, spending time in a tractor or on trips to town, take the opportunity to think about what your immediate, intermediate and then longer term needs/goals are for your operation and your family. They all need attention and some with more urgency than others. Don’t fall into the trap of letting crisis manage you along with decisions you might then be forced to make. We all can talk about different calamites that pop up every day. We need time to handle them promptly for sure, but more importantly, make sure fewer of them happen as time goes on. How can you help tip the odds in your favor?  Yup, thinking multiple steps ahead. Spending time up front and early on when decisions are made impact future events. You are in control of making those events easier to deal with or the alternative is simply kicking the can down the road to where issues tend to get bigger and bigger. 

Maybe some people call this simply planning as opposed to thinking multiple steps ahead. I agree that certainly planning can be a part of one’s thinking multiple steps ahead but when I envision planning, I think of it as a longer term process where you do substantial research, gather a fair amount of information and then come up with a specific plan to be implemented that is often written down. Thinking multiple steps ahead does not need to be that involved for every situation. Sometimes you simply need to know: if I do this, how will that more than likely impact what happens next? Is that good, bad or has no impact on me? And so on and so on. Some may think that this is common sense and that you already do this and do it quite well. If you are that person, congratulations! Others, who have a chance to think about how they arrive at decisions might find that focusing on the possible cascade of events a bit more might actually increase their productivity.

I encourage you to try and incorporate thinking multiple steps ahead with your cow-calf operation. Take your nutrition program first and determine if the decisions you have made or are currently making get you started on a solid path for going into the winter months. If you can think of a nagging area where you made some quick decisions to get an issue behind you, make sure you go back and determine if there may be something now that can help bring it under better control. Everyone deserves a relaxing and enjoyable holiday season. Thinking multiple steps ahead can help you and your family take it in stride while making sure your herd is well cared for!