First Thing First

– Dr. Roy Burris, Beef Extension Professor, University of Kentucky

How do you get the most “bang for your buck” or the greatest return on your investment? It is quite simple, by doing the most important things first – before you spend a lot of money on other things.

Think of the “barrel stave theory”. That is a barrel will only hold water up to the level of the shortest stave. Like nutrients in the soil or nutrients in a cow’s diet – production is limited by the shortest “stave” or the first limiting nutrient. Correct that one first before moving to the next. It is a simple concept but a good one to remember.

The absolute worse cattle operation that I ever saw could have applied this concept. This operation was down south – in a swamp. A medical doctor with unlimited resources, I suppose, had bought a large tract of land, cleared and drained it. Then planted annual ryegrass and bought a few hundred head of cows before the grass came up.

The cows were held in a muddy lot until some ryegrass appeared. Then they spread ammonium nitrate and turned the cows out. A bunch of cows died – then they called me. When I got there, folks were slogging through the mud with an IV drip trying to save the downer cows. They told me that it appeared to be grass tetany. Man, I was more than a little disturbed at this scene and told “Eddie” (the manager) that it was probably just the excitement of seeing something green. I think it was actually nitrate poisoning caused by those weak cows drinking water from potholes with ammonium nitrate in them but, no matter, I had to tell them in no uncertain terms what I thought about buying cattle with nothing for them to eat. First things first! I almost lost my religion that day and I figured some straight talk was in order. Maybe Eddie would listen, sell some cows, and buy some feed.

But Eddie had other plans! He called me about a week later.

Hey, this is Eddie. I need you to call Dr. Smith (the owner).”
Cause we need to buy a Harvestore silo to recycle the cow manure.”

Then I really lost my religion. I said things to Eddie that would make a sailor blush. Not my proudest moment but Eddie got the message – or did he?

You couldn’t recycle manure if you wanted to. Those cows are standing in three feet of mud!
Okay, okay, I’ll call Dr. Smith myself.”
Are you kidding me? You’ve got a lot of things to be done before you get to that point. First things first!

That was the last I heard from Eddie but I try to remember him when I deal with producers. My advice to you is to think about your operation. First, what are your goals? What is keeping you from reaching those goals? Now, make a list of 2 or 3 things that are the most “limiting” in your operation. Then focus on those things first before you spend a lot of money so that you get the best return on your investment. You know – first things first!